SCENE IT: 1-2-3 Blast Off! Crafting Out-of-this-World Scene Launches
Just like a story, a scene needs to have a distinct beginning, middle, and end, no matter how long or how short the scene is. And while each can be approached the way you handle those three parts in your overall story, within the confines of a single scene, each component has unique needs that we’re going to look at over the next several posts.
When we talk about “beginning” a scene, it can be a little confusing—because sometimes scenes pick up right in the middle of action or dialogue or immediately where the previous scene left off. But whether you’re introducing a new character/setting/action or picking up right where the previous scene left off, there are still some principles that can be applied to make that scene launch more dynamic.
There are three basic types of scene openings:
• Character launch (opening with dialogue, or the character’s thoughts)
- For all that Flannery kept calm and cool on the outside, inside. . .garbled, short-circuited thoughts tumbled through her head. Her heart went from racing to a slow pounding. And it was all she could
do not to call her mom and dad.
Once again, she thanked God Jamie and Maureen were with her so she didn’t have to do this alone. She glanced up and caught Jamie looking at her through the rearview mirror.
She looked away. She didn’t need pity right now; she needed strength. She needed him to hug her and reassure her and kiss her. Again.
(Chapter 23, Scene 2, Turnabout’s Fair Play by Kaye Dacus)
• Action Launch (starting with some sort of movement/action)
Pounding feet overhead awakened William. Outside, dawn lay gray and pink on the horizon. He listened a moment longer before untangling himself from Julia, leaping out of the bed, and hastening to dress.
(Chapter 19, Scene 2, Ransome’s Crossing by Kaye Dacus)
• Setting Launch (starting with the setting)
No moon. Wispy clouds hid most of the stars. He could not have asked for a more perfect night. Before him, the house glowed like a lantern atop the hill. Behind him, his men waited for his command.
(Prologue, Ransome’s Quest by Kaye Dacus)
But no matter which of these launches you choose, you need to get your characters into the scene as soon as possible (in Make a Scene…, Rosenfeld says no later than the second paragraph of the scene). And if your scene launch goes on for too many paragraphs in passive description or narrated ideas, you’re going to lose the reader. So be sure to get character and action into the scene as soon as possible, no matter which of these scene launch types you choose. And don’t start every scene with the same type of launch (e.g., don’t start every scene—or too many back-to-back scenes—with dialogue).
Be sure the reader knows who (and what, if you’re writing sci-fi/fantasy) your characters are. Make it clear whose viewpoint we’re in. Establish a purpose, a goal, or an intention for the character. Jordan Rosenfeld in Make a Scene calls this the scene intention:
Give [your character] an intention in every scene—a job that he wants to carry out that will give purpose to the scene. The intention doesn’t come from nowhere—it stems directly from the significant situation of your plot and from your protagonist’s personal history. To clarify, an intention is a character’s plan to take an action, to do something, whereas a motivation is a series of reasons, from your protagonist’s personal history to his mood, that accounts for why he plans to take an action.
In every scene these intentions will drive the action and consequences; they will help you make each scene relevant to your plot and character development. Intentions are an important way to build drama and conflict into your narrative, too, because as your protagonist pursues his intention, you will oppose it, thwart it, intensify his desire for it, and maybe, only at the end of your narrative, grant him the satisfaction of achieving it.
Questions for Determining Scene Intention
- What are the most immediate desires of your character?
- Will your character meet his intention or meet with opposition?
- Does the scene intention make sense to the overall plot of your story?
- Will the people your character encounters in the scene help or hinder him/her in achieving the intention?
Scene intentions need to involve conflict and they need to tie into the plot or one of the subplots of the story. You need to know your character’s intentions from the beginning of the scene so you know whether they are supposed to reach them or not.
General Guidelines for Crafting Scene Openings
Action doesn’t need setup. The sooner you start the action in a scene, the more momentum it has to carry the reader forward. If you find yourself explaining an action, they you don’t have action anymore—you have narrative.
You need physical movement and a sense of time passing—and the lack of an explanation as to why something is happening is what keeps a reader reading.
Get straight to the action. If a character is going to jump off a cliff, open with him stepping off the edge, not standing there contemplating it for five paragraphs.
Hook the reader with big or surprising actions. An outburst, a car crash, a heart attack, a public argument, a knock at the door.
Be sure the action is true to your character. Don’t open a scene with a shy/quiet character going off on someone. That’s something to build up to at the end of a scene. Do open with a difficult boss berating that shy/quiet character.
Act first, think later. If the character needs to react to something or have a (brief) moment of introspection, have them do something active first.
You can start a scene with narrative—but it needs to fit naturally with the flow of your story, and be used only occasionally:
- When narrative summary can save time: Sometimes you need to summarize a passage of time or a series of actions taken by a character between scenes.
- When information needs to be communicated before an action: Sometimes you just need to set the scene (“Mother died before I got there”; “The storm left half the city under water.”)
- When a character’s thoughts or intentions cannot be revealed in action: Sometimes characters cannot speak or act for themselves, whether for physical, emotional, or mental reasons.
You can also start some scenes with setting details: a forest fire, moonlight sparking on the ocean, etc. But remember, description needs to be important to the plot of the story (like a forest fire) or to set the character’s/scene’s mood (moonlight) and give information on location/passage of time in the story. Be sure to use specific visual details, allow scenery (adjectives/moods) to set the tone of the scene, and use scenery to reflect a character’s feelings by how the character views the world around her.
The best way to start a scene is in media res—or in the middle of the action. Just drop the reader in the scene with no explanation and let them figure out what’s going on as your characters interact with each other.
Do you have a favorite way to open scenes when you’re writing? As a reader, are there certain types of scene openings that draw you directly into the scene while others make you skip ahead or put the book down?
Dacus, Kaye. Ransome’s Crossing. Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 2010.
Dacus, Kaye. Ransome’s Quest. Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 2011.
Dacus, Kaye. Turnabout’s Fair Play. Uhrichsville, OH: Barbour Pub., 2011.
Rosenfeld, Jordan E. Make a Scene: Crafting a Powerful Story One Scene at a Time. Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest, 2008.